These Christians have found a way around Obamacare, but is it a good deal?

Nice lede. Interesting subject matter. Variety of sources.

I enjoyed a recent San Jose Mercury News feature on health care sharing ministries. Hat tip to the Pew Research Center's daily religion headlines email for highlighting the story this week.

Let's start at the top of the Mercury News report:

Go to church, be faithful to your spouse and shun tobacco, booze and drugs.

Promising to adhere to that “biblical lifestyle,” more than 300,000 Americans are taking advantage of a little-known provision in the nation’s health care law that allows them to avoid the new penalties for not having health insurance.

Long before Christian groups and Obamacare opponents cheered last month’s Supreme Court ruling that allows many private businesses to stop offering certain types of birth control they find immoral, the 4-year-old law gave its blessing to Americans to opt out of the insurance mandate if they object on religious grounds.

So many instead are enrolling in “health care sharing ministries” that spread medical care costs among people of similar beliefs. Participants make monthly contributions to help cover each other’s major health care costs, but forgo coverage for most routine care.

We at GetReligion have been known to complain about scare quotes. But in the case of "biblical lifestyle" above, the story refers to a specific definition of that lifestyle, so the quote marks make sense. Meanwhile, the quote marks around "health care sharing ministries" indicate — and rightly so — that the term may be new or unfamiliar to readers. 

A little later, the Mercury News quotes both advocates and critics of the ministries:

Advocates say the attraction to the ministries is threefold: They honor religious beliefs — claims are denied for things such as abortion and alcohol- or drug-related injuries or illnesses. And participants say they have the personal satisfaction of helping out their fellow Christians with major health care costs, confident the same will be done for them in their time of need. Also, the plans are cheaper — but offer less coverage — than many health plans.

”Everyone understands the way traditional insurance works,” said Jeffrey Rotsko, a 61-year-old general contractor from San Jose who signed up for a ministry plan in 2007. “For some people, this is a new concept.”

Critics, however, say that because the ministries are not considered health insurance companies by about half the states in the country, they are not subject to state regulations that apply to health insurers. That’s generally the case in California, where Department of Insurance officials say based on the ministry plans they’ve reviewed so far, they do not offer consumers protection that is available to those who purchase health insurance.

”My general message when asked about health care sharing ministries is very much ‘buyer beware,’ “ said Sabrina Corlette, a project director at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute. “If the company does not pay your claim or denies coverage for service, or God forbid, they go belly-up, there is no protection for the consumer.”

I appreciate the newspaper's desire to quote sources on both sides — that's just good journalism, after all. Still, I wondered if the critics could provide any specific examples of consumers who bought into health care sharing ministries then were not satisfied. 

Speaking of square quotes, this paragraph in the story struck me as awkward:

Adopting a philosophy that began in biblical times and that has been marketed in the U.S. by religious nonprofit health care sharing groups since the 1980s, most of the plans require their participants to commit to a “statement of faith” surrounding their belief in the Holy Trinity. Members are asked to make a monthly contribution, similar to a premium, based on their desired level of coverage. They can choose their own doctors and submit their claims for medical costs to the ministries.

I'm not sure "statement of faith" requires quote marks. At the same time, I'm unclear on exactly what philosophy began in biblical times and what the ministries believe concerning the Holy Trinity. I would have welcomed a clearer description of the statement of faith.

I did like, though, that the Mercury News explained the "biblical lifestyle" requirement and gave a voice to plan participants:

In return, participants agree to follow a “biblical lifestyle,” including attending church regularly, abstaining from sex outside of marriage and tobacco, in addition to not abusing drugs or alcohol.

By agreeing to do this, ministries say, members avoid habits that can lead to higher health care costs.

Mike Garner, a 57-year-old San Jose resident who signed up for a plan with his wife in 2008 to help reduce costs, said he doesn’t consider it a sacrifice.

”If I have a glass of wine every two months, I’m living it up,” said Garner, a Presbyterian pastor who is now a missionary.

Rotsko, the South Bay contractor, said lower costs — and a connection to Christ — were behind his decision to join Medi-Share in 2007 after he spotted an advertisement about the program in his monthly Christian Today magazine.

I suspect Rotsko actually was referring to Christianity Today. A quick Google search would have helped the Mercury News there.

Along with the story, the newspaper provided sidebar stats on the ministries' national and California memberships and details on treatments and conditions the groups won't cover.

Overall, it's a solid — albeit not perfect — piece of journalism on a timely subject.

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